The Last Lecture Book Summary and Review

A powerful book about the lessons of a well-lived life cut short 

Three key takeaways from The Last Lecture

  • The walls that keep us from our dreams are actually there for us to prove how badly we want them
  • Time should be managed like money
  • You can’t change the cards you’re dealt, only how you respond. You can either be the optimistic and happy Tigger or the sad Eeyore.

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At its most basic level, The Last Lecture is about a teacher living out the last few months of his life while trying to leave a legacy to his young children. It’s a sad book about goodbyes, but also a powerful and sobering reminder to pursue your dreams. 

The Last Lecture acts as a concise list of life lessons from someone who lived a “normal” but successful life. These lessons cover wide-ranging topics including time, relationships, careers, hard work, teaching and parenting. 

It was written by Randy Pausch, an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie-Mellon University. Randy was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and was given a forecast of 3 – 6 months of good health by his doctors. 

After receiving his terminal diagnosis he was also given the opportunity by Carnegie-Mellon to give a lecture in what they called their “Journeys” program. This program was previously called “The Last Lecture”, and speakers would imagine it was their final lecture and use the opportunity to impart some wisdom to their audience. Unfortunately for Randy, his lecture would be final in a real sense. 

The topic Randy chose for his last lecture would be childhood dreams, and he would use the recorded lecture as a way to teach his children these lessons once he was gone.

The Last Lecture is a summary of the final lecture Randy gave, as well as additional stories and advice from his life.

The advice ranges from the extremely practical – stand up when you’re on the phone to speed up meetings and conversations – to the profound. Below are some of the key learnings from The Last Lecture.

The “walls” around our dreams aren’t there to keep us out

The biggest takeaway I got from The Last Lecture was that the “walls” around our dreams are not there to keep us out, but are there to give us an opportunity to show how badly we want to get in.

One example of this is how Randy achieved his goal of being an Imagineer at Disney. Imagineers make up the research and development team at Disneyland and are responsible in part for creating new attractions and rides. After receiving his PhD, Randy applied for a role in Imagineering and was knocked back. 

Rather than get discouraged, he waited. Later in his career while he was a professor working on virtual reality projects, he learned Disneyland was also working on a virtual reality attraction. He called Disney under the guise of wanting some information about the project, and eventually through persistence was able to get through to Jon Snoddy, the Imagineer running the project. He told Jon he had an upcoming sabbatical, and was accepted for the role. 

He then had to convince his managing dean at the university that he should be able to take this sabbatical at Disney. He came up against stiff resistance, but instead of giving up, he pleaded his case to another dean and was granted his request.

Time must be managed like money

As someone with only a few months left to live at the time of writing his book, Randy also spoke about the importance of time:

“Time is all you have. And you may find one day that you have less than you think”. 

The book includes a number of useful tips for time management:

  • Time must be managed like money. Avoid wasting your time on irrelevant details e.g polishing “the underside of the banister”.
  • Periodically question your pursuits. Regularly ask yourself: are you spending time on the right things? Are the goals and pursuits you’re spending your time on really worth pursuing?
  • Have a good filing system. This reduces the time spent trying to find things.
  • Get good at delegation. You can often trust people more than you think.
  • Take time out. And when you take time out on a holiday or vacation, disconnect completely from emails and calls.

You can’t change the cards you were dealt, only how you respond

Optimism and fun is an overall theme of The Last Lecture

Randy’s belief was that optimism can help you physically. The example he gave was that his optimism helped him cope with the aggressive chemotherapy treatments he signed up for, and pushed him to continue searching for cutting edge treatments. 

Another key theme in the book was that you control your outlook on life. You can choose to be the fun-loving Tigger or the sad Eyeore from the Winnie the Pooh stories, and as Randy wrote, he saw no upside in being the sad Eyeore.

Other great ideas from The Last Lecture

This book is full of wise lessons which you’ve probably heard at various times in your life. It’s valuable because it puts these lessons into one place and illustrates them with real stories from Randy’s life.

Some of my other favourite nuggets of wisdom were:

  • Find yourself a “Dutch Uncle”. A Dutch Uncle is someone who gives you honest feedback. In a world where we often shy away from criticism, sometimes we need to seek out someone who will be honest about our flaws so that we can rise even higher. As Randy also mentions in another part of the book, if nobody says anything to you when they see you do something badly, then that means they’ve given up on you. You may not want to hear it, but critics often love you and just want to make you better.
  • Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. Experience is a key part of growth, and it’s often the most valuable thing you have to offer others. According to Randy, “failure is not just acceptable, it’s often essential”.
  • There’s more than one way to measure profits and losses, so businesses should have a heart. When Randy was a child visiting Disneyland, he bought a souvenir for his parents and dropped it while running out of the store. The Disneyland employees replaced the broken souvenir for free even though it was Randy’s fault. When he told his parents the story, it made them appreciate Disneyland, and over the years in their volunteer work they made sure to continue bringing business there. Randy estimates this was worth $100,000 of business.

There’s so much gold in The Last Lecture, and being such a short book, I highly recommend you pick up a copy and read it. 

You can also watch the recording of Randy’s lecture at Carnegie Mellon on YouTube, as well as a shortened version he later gave on the Oprah Winfrey show

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